George Balanchine’s Jewels (1967) is in the repertory of many of the world’s renowned ballet companies, and the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival presented the iconic work with three of the best troupes, each performing one section. Paris Opera Ballet performed Emeralds on every program; the Bolshoi and New York City Ballet (NYCB) alternated in Rubies and Diamonds. It is said that Balanchine choreographed a section in the respective ballet influences of France, America, and Russia. The festival performances provided brief glimpses of each company’s style and some of their leading principals. Each company wore its own costume designs, so those differences were additional points of intrigue for ballet wonks.
Emeralds, set to music by Fauré, is the most lush and romantic section. The suffusion of greens in the “home” NYCB set by Peter Harvey (redone in 2004), the elegant mid-length, pleated tutus for Paris Opera Ballet by Christian Lacroix, and the music create a fragrantly verdant atmosphere. The pacing and movement quality speak to maturity, an even temper, and the passage of time. The casting of Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand in the lead parts was notable for their sizable discrepancy in heights.
Gilbert demonstrated remarkable balance and fluidly expressive hands. In fact, the softness and elegance of the entire company’s hands contrasted with the NYCB penchant (and to some extent, the Boshoi) for spidery fingers spread in different directions, ostensibly to add more visual drama in the big Koch Theater. Marchand is the prototypical tall prince with elegant lines and giant leaps. The luminous Léonore Baulac (an “étoile,” like Gilbert and Marchand) imbued the “clock-ticking” leg movements with great precision. Marc Moreau (a “sujet,” third rank dancer) caught my attention with his magnetism and panache; he partnered two women in the trio. Generally speaking, the dancers seemed to float above the music, rather than sink into it, but this effect could also be a byproduct of the impressionistic Fauré.
I was “raised” on NYCB’s Jewels, one of the first full-length, abstract ballets that helped propel American ballet to the form’s international forefront. So I felt somewhat disoriented while watching the Bolshoi in Rubies, with music by Tchaikovsky. Yulia Grebenshchikova certainly handled the Amazon role well, with her impressively lengthy limbs and high forced arches—key to the drama in her entrance. But when I think of the role’s most authoritative New York interpreter in recent memory—NYCB’s Teresa Reichlin—I miss that steely, mysterious reserve that powers her performance. (Reichlin danced in the other cast.) Artem Ovcharenko, dancing the lead duo with Ekaterina Krysanova, played up the witty, athletic, and humorous moves in a slapstick manner, rather than with the innocent enthusiasm closer in spirit to musical theater. And I missed Barbara Karinska’s gladiator-style peplums for NYCB (both women and men) that clack and sparkle in pirouettes and jumps.
Fittingly, NYCB’s most starry principals—Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle—led the cast of Diamonds, also with music by Tchaikovsky. Mearns is able to imbue non-narrative, formal dance with implied drama. And while there are some fleeting gestural cues in Diamonds that hint at a shifting relationship with Angle—a caress or a tug away—it is primarily her attitude that conveys some hidden emotional subtext. Add to that her impressive technical ability—the skill to be daring and push physical limits while ultimately staying in control (even in quicker sections that might favor an allegro specialist). Angle, on the other hand, is cool, solid as a rock, and acts as a mirror for his partner. His intuitive épaulement—perfect, always—allow him to (forgive the pun) angle his upper body to best complement her. He also jumps higher than most. All these skills are downplayed by his lack of showiness, even in several solo sections. The NYCB corps dances assertively, seemingly more earthbound; they’re at home, so they are understandably more confident and at ease.
The Taming of the Shrew
The festival also presented the Bolshoi’s The Taming of the Shrew, choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot in 2014 to music by Shostakovich. As with many of Maillot’s productions, the sets (Ernest Pignon-Ernest) are sleek and stunning, the costumes (Augustin Maillot) chic enough for a runway. There are numerous meaty roles to showcase the company’s abundant talent—two lead couples and a “housekeeper” who behaves more like an emcee. Despite eventual contentment, there’s a disconnect between the outdated gender relations, stereotypes, and the contemporary mise-en-scène—in theory, at least. The Shakespearean story revolves around a father (Artemy Belyakov) trying to marry off his two daughters. Tradition dictates that the older one, Katharina (Ekaterina Krysanova), marry first, but she is wild and impetuous and won’t be “tamed” into submission. In contrast, her sister Bianca (Olga Smirnova) is sweet, demure, and an object of woo by several lads; she winds up with Lucentio (Semyon Chudin). Eventually, the rogue drunkard Petruchio (Vladislav Lantratov) agrees to marry Katharina for her money; after much fighting and abuse, they grow into love, in the end taming one another.
Bullying seems to have come back into fashion as a way to win, making this story—sadly—timely. Gender politics aside, we had the chance to see the powerful dancers at work. Krysanova—striking, with flame-red hair and a green bustier—had the most stage time, slashing her legs like scythes and pushing past the point of safety in athletic passages. Lantratov was similarly bold, at one point overturning a stool by being too forceful, landing on his behind, and leaping up as if nothing happened. This ferocious pair was far more interesting to watch than the well-behaved, if handsome, Bianca and Lucentio, danced with elegance by Smirnova and Chudin. Yanina Parienko as the housekeeper had some fun, entering before the curtain rose, lounging on the stage apron, and helping the curtain ascend.
Maillot’s style is neo-classical ballet, heavily peppered with gesture. The basic, bold building blocks arrive intact—grand jetés, super high leg extensions, double tours en l’air. He adds moves that serve to define character or intent, creating a highly expressionistic, at times garish, form that shows off the dramatic potential of the Bolshoi. He excels at choreographing for secondary characters, such as a sneaky thief or fatuous servant. And he had a bit of fun with the odd closing number to Shostakovich’s arrangement of “Tea for Two,” in which three groups took turns miming tea service, presumably, if improbably, tamed, and happy forever after. It may be that New York would be more receptive to one of the Socialist-era ballets, or even a rarely-seen version of an old classic such as Swan Lake. But this visit gave us a glimpse of the dancers’ technical and dramatic talents in an elaborate production showcasing a style prevalent primarily in Europe, and growing roots in Russia.